Hindu-Muslim friction confronts Gandhi with fresh challenge

Increasing disaffection among India's 77 million Muslims is the most recent addition to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's growing list of political woes. Communal riots in India's sensitive border state of Jammu and Kashmir last month have forced Mr. Gandhi to contend with the increasing Hindu-Muslim tensions in northern India. The violence in Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in mostly Hindu India, left at least three people dead.

The riots occurred at a time when Gandhi's government is finding it difficult to deal with the increasing alienation among the country's Muslims, who form some 11 percent of the population. The violence in Kashmir, and other regions in northern India, was apparently sparked by a court order that allowed a Hindu temple to reopen at the site of a shrine that Muslims also consider sacred, in the vicinity of New Delhi.

Gandhi's Congress (I) party recently withdrew its support for Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Muhammad Shah -- whose coalition government was increasingly blamed for inefficiency, corruption, and the breakdown of law and order. Governor's rule was imposed in the state, under which the state assembly is suspended and the governor, who is appointed by the central government in New Delhi, is in charge until he decides to reconvene the assembly or hold elections.

For Gandhi, the decision was a difficult one. Mr. Shah was brought to power by Gandhi's mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in July 1984 after she ousted Farooq Muhammad Abdullah, the popular leader of the Muslim majority which opposed the Congress's policies.

Shah's removal had evidently been eagerly awaited in Kashmir and also by Congress Party officials who have charged that Shah had failed to deal with ``antinational'' forces which advocate secession and alignment with neighboring Pakistan. It is not clear how long the governor's rule will be in force, but there is widespread speculation that Abdullah is likely to be reinstated as chief minister, possibly with the backing of a coalition government.

Many Indian analysts say Gandhi was indecisive in handling Kashmir's problems last year, in part because of the pressures in troubled Punjab State.

Others say that Gandhi and his advisers were wary of being seen as capitulating to Abdullah's popular Muslim opposition in Kashmir. As things stand today, Gandhi's party would almost certainly lose if state elections were to be held.

``Whatever the reason for the delay,'' says a Western diplomat, ``there's no doubt that Gandhi should have done something about it sooner.''

The roots of the Hindu-Muslim conflict go back nine centuries to the start of the Muslim invasions. But, some historians say, it was under British colonial rule that such divisions became a cause of communal riots. The historians say colonialism was built on political patronage that deepened communal divisions and led to partition and creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947.

Under the Indian Constitution, the government guarantees protection of Muslim personal law, which is based on Islamic codes and principles. But many Muslims have come to feel that, as a minority in India, their political and economic role is gradually diminishing.

``There has been no attempt to build up secular politics,'' says an Indian lawyer. ``There are no laws against religious parties, for instance.''

Analysts say Hindu revivalism has emerged in recent years, partly because of perceived threats against the Hindus' dominant position. Some critics of Mrs. Gandhi say that she and her party rode on the revivalist wave for political ends, particularly during the crisis in Sikh-dominated Punjab in the early 1980s.

The Muslims have felt further estranged politically by a Supreme Court decision late last year to grant a 73-year-old divorced Muslim woman alimony from her former husband. The court also noted that a uniform civil code should be enacted.

The case sparked a furor among Muslims, many of whom believe the decision interferes in Muslim personal law.

Disputing this, a former justice, S. A. Masud, told a Calcutta-based newspaper: ``Nowhere in the [Muslim] holy books is there any prohibition that the maintenance cannot or must not be given a divorced woman . . . so . . . it cannot be said that this right is contrary to Islamic principles.''

But the legal implications have become the crux of a raging controversy with communal undertones.

``The present controversy is not just a battle between Muslim fundamentalists and their Hindu counterparts,'' comments Muslim lawyer Javed Gaya in a Bombay-based magazine, Imprint.

``The Muslim intelligentsia too expressed its reservations'' about a uniform civil code.

In what is viewed as a clumsy attempt to regain Muslim support, Gandhi later proposed a bill that would shift the burden of support to the divorced Muslim woman's relatives, and ultimately on the Muslim community.

``We don't think it is appeasement at all,'' Gandhi said of the proposed bill, in a recent press interview. ``We want Muslims to have a personal law, if they so want.''

But many liberal Muslims and Hindus, women's groups, and judges have opposed this move. Gandhi's minister of state for energy, Arif Muhammad Khan, a Muslim, recently resigned in protest against the bill.

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